How to Choose a (Our) University

The happy emails and web links have gone out (replacing those thick envelopes of yesteryear), and all those fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: picking the college that is just right for them. They are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study. Our school is expensive because it costs a lot to maintain the quality of our programs. But Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week and why there will be the great surge starting today for WesFest. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year with a record number of applications. But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we are seeing right now on campus.  We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

 

Wes Conversations Making a Difference

This morning I sent the email below to all Wesleyan students. I want to remind students that many of the issues they have raised have resulted in positive changes at Wesleyan. Of course, we haven’t pleased everybody, but we have listened carefully to how we can make alma mater an educational institution that aims at continuous improvement.

Dear friends,

A little over a week ago, after taking in some wonderful thesis projects at the Zilkha Gallery, I went over to Davison to view the exhibition of renowned photographer Philip Trager ’56 and listen in on his conversation with his long-time friend Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. Andy has written an essay for Phil’s latest book, based on the pictures on display. The exhibit itself reflected a half-century’s visual conversation between Philip and his wife Ina and stimulates deep contemplation about long-term relationships. Certainly Philip and Ina have had a long-term relationship to Wesleyan, and they announced at the Davison that they have made yet another generous gift of prized images to the university collection.

When Philip was a student here in the ’50s, he surely never thought he’d be back in 2016. I doubt few of you have thought about being back here decades hence, but I have no doubt that many of you will be back. For Wesleyan has made contributions to your life and you have contributed to the life of Wesleyan. Indeed, the two are intertwined – in the projects that you’ve shared with others, in your athletic efforts on behalf of your teammates, in your theatrical collaborations, in the friendships you’ve made. And, of course, in your ideas on how to improve our university.

You’ve made your ideas known through gentle suggestions, vigorous public demonstrations, written arguments, and informal conversations passed along over a meal. And we have heard you. Your concern about social life with the closure this year of Greek Houses prompted us to make more funds available to sponsor large gatherings. Many students were experiencing long wait times for certain counseling services, and so we hired a new staff member in CAPS and have focused on more responsive protocols. When young alumni pointed out that even small loans could be a burden for folks from low-income families, we increased the no-loan threshold of family income. This, combined with changes to expected family (often student) payments, should ease some of the burdens we’ve heard about, as should our new emergency fund to support those in need who encounter unexpected expenses during the school year. When students expressed worries about running out of meal points before the end of term, we set up a fund to help; we also plan to provide more flexibility for students to use meals during the semester. And when students pointed out problems with our summer housing, we reduced housing costs for students with high financial need. Don’t get me wrong: I know that these steps haven’t eliminated all the issues, but I do think they are signs of progress.

We also launched a mentoring program and skill-building workshops for those students who might benefit from additional support as they transition to Wes. We have responded to your concerns about course access by adding additional sections in high-demand areas, such as computer science, economics, and psychology. Our shared concerns about faculty departures in African American Studies has led to hiring two new full-time members of the program and others who work in this field. The new Workshop at Hewitt 8 is the result of a student proposal last year. And we will soon see the report of the Equity Task Force, which should help us improve the campus experience more generally. Again, these steps are not meant to be definitive. We must continue to address issues raised by students, faculty and staff.

At Wesleyan we respond to students not as consumers in a transaction, but as members of a community, as participants in an extended conversation. Our goal is always to improve the distinctive quality of the educational experience of our students, whether we’re hiring a new staff member, renovating a building, or deciding a tenure case.

I look forward to hearing more from you—be it at a scheduled appointment (my Drop-In hours are most Mondays 4:30 – 5:30 p.m.), at an impromptu meeting over lunch, or if our paths cross at some event. When we talk about improving our university, we may not always agree, but I trust we are all listening closely. It’s a conversation helpful to Wesleyans now and those who follow. And who knows? It’s a conversation that may last a lifetime.

Campus Planning Framework

Last spring Sasaki Associates & Eastley+Partners worked with student, faculty, staff and alumni groups to develop guidelines for campus planning. After much brainstorming, conversation and analysis, they presented a report detailing five main principles:

1. Synergy of Residential and Academic Experience

How can we create spaces that tie academic work to campus learning more broadly?

 

2. Network of Informal Learning Spaces

How can we enhance the idiosyncratic spaces in which serendipitous encounters lead to deep learning?

 

3. Spectrum of Formal Learning Spaces

How can faculty and students collaborate in creating places on campus appropriate to the new ways we teach and learn most effectively?

 

4. Transparency of Indoor/Outdoor Spaces

How can we plan for spaces that weave a more seamless connection between the interior and exterior landscapes?

 

5. Engagement Local and Global

 How can the principles of sustainability and stewardship lead to more productive engagement for the Wesleyan community in Middletown and beyond?

You can find a link to the executive summary of the report here. Thanks to the Facilities Committee and all the other Wesleyans who contributed to this effort. Over the course of this year we will begin to plan for campus improvements guided by this work.

How to Destroy Higher Education

The title above is the one The Daily Beast gave to an essay I published earlier this year. Over the last several months I’ve been arguing that the increasing focus on narrow, vocational education is a crucial mistake, one that neglects a deep resource of pragmatic liberal learning. I have been talking about liberal education at various venues around the country since the publication of my book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014). I wrote the book, and several op-eds since, because I believe that the kind of education we offer at Wesleyan is more relevant and compelling than ever before. I have argued that the current push for narrow, utilitarian forms of learning are part of the forces legitimating trends toward inequality in our country. The American tradition of liberal education has been a resource to combat inequality, and it can be again.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, February 3 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Chapel, I will be talking about these issues at Wesleyan. I am particularly delighted that my Wesleyan advisor and mentor Henry Abelove, who retired just a few years ago, will come back to campus to introduce the talk.

We’ll be selling and signing copies of Beyond the University (all my royalties are contributed to financial aid at Wesleyan).

I hope to see many of you tomorrow night.

Year-End Thanks

Dear friends,

This year has been exciting in so many ways, and as it draws to a close I want to express my gratitude to the entire Wesleyan family for their many contributions to making our university the creative, caring and engaged place it is. I think back to the first-Friday MASH (the music festival that began to tap into the amazing vitality of students, faculty and staff), the competitive fire of our athletes, the generosity of our volunteers, the passion of our activists…these were all on display over the course of the year. In this, my seventh year, the student body continues to surprise me with its exuberance, commitment and ardent devotion to pursuing lives of purpose and meaning.

In this season, I like to remind folks to check out the faculty bookshelf. From philosophical considerations of concern and communication, to histories of the Ottoman Empire, from accounts of how we learn from experience at the personal level, to accounts of how we have failed to do so at the policy level, our faculty continue to shape the culture all around us. The scholars who produced this work are also spirited teachers who inspire students every week of the semester.

None of the scholarship and teaching would take place without the thoughtful and dedicated contributions of the Wesleyan staff. They make all these achievements possible. The staff’s determined, inventive efforts—from reading admission files to planning graduation events—are at the heart of all we do.

The Board of Trustees guides this institution with generosity, care and intelligence. Whatever differences we may have about specific policies, we are all dedicated to ensuring that our university remains at the forefront of progressive liberal arts education. I am grateful for being part of this team.

With best wishes for a restful break, a joyful holiday and a very happy new year,

Michael

Inclusion: Learning from Ability and Disability

Over the last few years I have met several times with students, faculty and staff concerning “differently abled” students. On one level, the university’s policies in this regard are clear:

Wesleyan University is committed to supporting all students in their academic and co-curricular endeavors. Each semester, a number of students document learning, physical, sensory, or psychiatric disabilities which may require reasonable accommodations to ensure access to education, housing, and recreation.

Access is a key word, and we want to make sure that all students — whether they are dealing with broken ankles, depression, or hearing loss — can thrive on our campus. This can be a challenge for all concerned, but all concerned can learn from the challenge; we can learn to try to experience the world from the perspective of people whose abilities may be different from our own.

In our classrooms students with documented disabilities are encouraged to make arrangements for appropriate accommodations. Laura Patey, Associate Dean for Student Academic Resources, can help in this process. This is from her office’s webpage:

Students who request accommodations are required to provide documentation outlining their needs.  In addition, students will need to meet with Dean Patey to discuss how appropriate accommodations or modifications may assist them in participating in campus life or courses and fulfilling course requirements. In addition, Dean Patey will discuss other types of support and services available to all Wesleyan students, such as tutoring programs and writing support through the Writing Workshop.

Like most professors, over the years I’ve worked with many students whose physical and psychiatric disabilities have profoundly influenced the way they think and feel. I have learned much from them about the conventions we used to divide groups into the normal and the abnormal, and I have often admired the capacities these students develop to navigate in a world that privileges particular modes of living and particular cultures. In recent years, the field of Disability Studies has been developing to examine these divisions, privileges and cultures. At Wesleyan, the field is described, in part, as follows: Disability Studies at Wesleyan does not ascribe or attribute disability to specific bodies, psychological conditions, or groups, but rather teaches students to understand the classificatory conventions that decide what is normal/able or abnormal/disabled in a given time and place.  The webpage for this course cluster lists many resources in the field.

In my first year of teaching I worked extensively with a student whose mental illness came, frighteningly, in almost predictable waves. She explained this to me forthrightly, and we studied together very closely in a tutorial on Nietzsche while she was able to do so. Her courage and clear-sightedness were inspiring, although they were not enough to prevent her illness from recurring. I’ve written about this experience in “On A Certain Blindness in Teaching,” and I often think about the many students I’ve had over the years who have faced their problems with extraordinary tenacity, sensitivity and openness. They are hungry to learn, and they teach their teachers so much.

When we invoke with pride the moniker “Diversity University,” we should remember that this also refers to people with a varied abilities/disabilities. In regard to economic inequality I wrote that it was not enough to recruit students from low-income groups and provide financial aid that meets their full need without excessive loans. A similar principle should guide our efforts at inclusion in regard to people with different abilities/disabilities. It is important but not sufficient to provide access, including the relevant accommodations.  We must create a campus culture in which all can thrive; we must create the conditions for an educational experience in which students from all backgrounds learn together and learn from one another.

That’s a goal worth striving for, with all the abilities we have.

Inclusion and Economic Inequality

In three prior posts, I’ve written about obstacles to and opportunities for inclusion on campus, focusing on race, on gender, and on religious belief and political conviction. In this post I’d like to consider the impact of economic inequality on inclusion.

This summer I read about a new study that examined rates of economic mobility in different parts of the country.  Geography, it seems, matters a great deal in predicting the chances to better one’s relative economic standing. To quote a New York Times blog about the study:

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

There are many variables at play here, and I don’t want to oversimplify the various correlations, but there was one factor that really caught my attention. “All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.”

How is this issue related to our own campus culture? Over the last five years, Wesleyan has significantly increased the percentage of Pell eligible students on campus. This coincided with our eliminating required loans for our students with the greatest financial need, and reducing required loans for everybody else (replacing these loans with grants). We also began working with Questbridge, adding this great organization to our many partnerships with community-based organizations. These groups help us to spread the word about Wes and to recruit low-income, high-ability students.

But in our diversity forums last year, I learned that recruiting high-need students is not enough. We also have to create a campus culture in which they can thrive; we have to create the conditions for an educational experience in which students from all backgrounds learn together and learn from one another.

What does this have to do with the general study of geography and economic mobility across the United States? Insofar as the experience of high need students segregates them from the rest of the student body, we have failed them. We will only get the maximum benefit from our financial aid policies when inclusion is the order of the day for all students – regardless of their economic status. Although I spent many hours working in a kitchen when I was an undergraduate at Wes to pay for my room and board, I was lucky to live in an environment in which this didn’t prevent me from having plenty of interaction with students from various walks of life. My teachers and fellow students never made me feel excluded from the ways they were experiencing Wesleyan.

That was a long time ago, and America today is a land of much greater economic inequality, much greater distance between the haves and the have-nots.

As I’ve written before, on campus we resist this trend because the educational enterprise assumes a core egalitarianism linked to freedom and participation. As teachers, we are committed to equality of opportunity for our students. In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks. In small seminars, there is a face-to-face equality altered only by the talent, ambition and creativity of the discussion participants. Differences often quickly emerge, but these are the differences of performance — variations able to emerge exactly because of the environment of equality and freedom.

There is no doubt that some students are better prepared than others, and that some of that preparation was facilitated by wealth. Still, in our campus culture these advantages of birth or luck shouldn’t mean much over time. All students at Wes have the opportunity to accelerate and deepen their learning. In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences. Furthermore, at Wesleyan students come to see intellectual freedom modeled by their instructors in ways not dependent on wealth.

This week President Obama called for some important reforms in higher education aimed at making college more accessible and at creating a system through which prospective students would have as much information as possible about a school’s real costs, graduation rates, and the outcomes for the graduates. We must be prudent about new regulations because of the perverse incentives they can create, but they do address a real problem. It is unacceptable that so many schools with terrible track records soak up so much federal funding.

Wesleyan has been moving in the direction of sustainable affordability. We’ve announced a three-year option, which allows students to complete the same number of courses typically done over four years by using summer sessions. This saves families about 20 percent off the total tuition. We’ve also announced that we will no longer raise tuition aggressively, keeping increases in line with inflation. Over many years we have become an expensive school, and I know we have a long way to go to becoming more affordable. But this year and next will see our smallest tuition increases ever, and we will stay on this new course.

We will continue to recruit students of extraordinary potential from diverse economic backgrounds, meeting their full financial needs, and we will redouble our efforts to ensure that they are fully included in our campus culture. Like those dynamic, integrated regions singled out in the economic mobility study, our campus must create conditions that bring people together in ways that positively enhance their lives. At a time when economic inequality is tearing at the fabric of our country, we must create conditions of inclusion through which all can thrive.

Spring Break and the Theses Writers are Hard at Work

Every March, faculty and students find the two weeks without classes a welcome breather before the intense rush toward finals and the end of the semester. For a group of determined seniors, though, the March break is crunch time as they prepare their senior theses. And there are many faculty who are working harder than ever as they read drafts and discuss final strategies with their honors students. March may come in like a lion and leave like a lamb (we hope) from the perspective of the weather, but for folks slaving away in their labs in Shanklin and Hall Attwater, or their carrels in Olin, or in the studios of the CFA, March is a key opportunity to bring projects closer to completion.

Sam Ebb, who I know as an active representative on academic matters from the WSA, is writing about compulsory voting, and why it may be a solution to solving the problem of economic inequality, misrepresentation, and the role of big money in the US. I wonder if Sam thinks we should try compulsory voting at Wes. Like Sam, Elizabeth Williams is doing a CSS thesis. Prof. Elvin Lim reports she is writing about the evolving role and involvement of the coal industry in the West Virginian economy, exploring the accumulated, path-dependent effects of the industry during its highs and especially its lows on the state’s post-industrial economy.

Michaela Tolman has been working at characterizing the types of neurons made by mouse and human embryonic stem cells, both in a culture dish and after transplantation to the mouse hippocampus. Under certain conditions we can generate inhibitory interneurons, which may be useful for suppressing seizures in mouse models of temporal lobe epilepsy, or so Laura Grabel tells me!

Like Amy Bloom, I’m a big fan of writer and musician Jason Katzenstein. Jason is writing a graphic novel, entitled Close To Me, about anxiety and love, both familial and romantic. How romantic is hairstyling in the Ancien Régime? Dean Andrew Curran tells me about another CSS thesis, by Eliza Fisher, who is studying the rise and consolidation of absolutism under Louis XIV and XV and the simultaneous creation of consumer culture. Her goal is to identify what the history of hairstyles in Bourbon France can tell us about the economic, sexual, and to a certain extent, political culture of the era. How cool is that?

Speaking of cool topics, Kari Weil told me about these COL theses: Samantha Januszeski is cooking up an analysis of the raw food movement in “You are what you eat”: An ethnographic study of Raw Foodism. Kyra Sutton is using her critical theory acumen to think about identity and religion in Islam’s Turn on the Couch: Psychoanalytic Theorizing of Muslim Identity in France. Ethan Kleinberg tells me that Savannah Whiting (Sociology and Romance Languages) is comparing the ways that Algeria figures in the work of Derrida and Bourdieu. Tobah Aukland (COL) is exploring Jewish art collectors and dealers in Paris from the late 19th century through Vichy in relation to issues of Franco-Jewish identity.

Jessica Wilson is finalizing curatorial decisions for her photography thesis exhibition. Jessica is interested in portraits of imitators. Nick Kokkinis (Math and Studio Art) is working on a painting senior thesis that Tula Telfair has described to me as post-minimalist. All I know is that post minimalism takes maximum effort!

Steve Collins reports that “the 16mm theses filmmakers are all tucked inside the editing rooms finishing their films.” Here are a few of his descriptions: “Ethan Young‘s black and white horror film is a nail-biting tale of a very scary house and some trauma that occurred there. It didn’t hurt the atmosphere that the crew found bags of sheep and goat carcasses in the abandoned house they were filming (they reported them to the police). Jenna Robbins is making a film about a young office worker struggling with her fantasies of perfection in order to find true love. Gabriel Urbina is editing and recording his score for his musical/hostage film, a classic Wesleyan genre mash-up combining gun-play with tap-dancing. And Chris McNabb is putting his deadpan wit and precise filmmaking into the final editing of Driven, his comic/melancholy tale of a suburban Dad pushed to his brink.”

Driven…and they call it a break….

Update:

Jennifer Tucker, who is organizing some lunch-time presentations by Wes students at the Allbritton Center later this term, wrote in from a research trip in England. She told me about the fabulous thesis of Aria Danaparamita, who will be presenting her work at a conference at Yale at the end of March. Aria’s title is British Borobudur Buddha: Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Orientalist Antiquarianism and (Post colonial) Development in Java.

Sara Mahurin, who is a visiting professor in English and African American Studies, writes about the following students: “Julia Christie is writing about visual experience — what it means to look at, look back, look ahead — in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop; Alex Kelley is writing a fascinating creative thesis comprised of “vignettes” — meditative micro-narratives from the perspective of an aging biology teacher, each taking for its starting point some species of animal; Alex Wilkinson is writing about legacy and liminality in Faulkner.”

James Gardner’s thesis is a historical analysis of Afro-Germans from the 1800s to modern day. It focuses primarily on Germans of African descent, their history and the reactions to their presence during three main eras of modern German history. James writes that “my research is a reaction to racism and discrimination that I noticed Afro-Germans faced during my recent study abroad in Berlin and work with one of the women who spearheaded the Afro-German identity movement in the 1980s, Katharina Oguntoye.”

I’m happy to add more names and topics for the next several days…

Katja Kolcio just wrote in with this good news:  Elena Georgieva who finished her thesis on the  connection between science and dance at Wesleyan, just won an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Honor Society Undergraduate Award for excellence in academics, research, and outreach (granted to only sixteen students every year).  She is presenting her thesis  to the Annual ASBMB Meeting in April 2013.  She also presented her work at the Harvard Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Research Conference in January.  Congratulations to Elena!

 

 

Commencement 2012: What Shall We Do With These Memories?

From my remarks at commencement, May 27, 2012. To read the really important speeches, see: http://newsletter.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2012/05/27/commencement/

When most of you began your Wesleyan education in the fall of 2008, the world was in a precarious state. It was an odd time to be investing in the future. But that’s what education is: a hopeful investment in the future. When you began here, America was waging two distant wars, the twisted legacies of a vicious attack on our country that took place when most of you were still in middle school. Today America has ended combat operations in Iraq and announced our intention to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan in the next two years. It is Memorial Day weekend, a time to reflect on the sacrifices that so many have made on behalf of our country, as we also reflect on the civilian lives that have been lost during these conflicts. We remember, but what shall we do with these memories?

In the fall of 2008 our country was headed toward the most significant economic dislocation since the Great Depression. Gigantic financial institutions that had ingeniously found ways to make enormous amounts of money while claiming to have mastered risk with casino-like schemes, were suddenly calling loudly for government help. The entire financial system seemed to be on the brink of collapse, and through a series of measures designed to restore some basic stability to our economic life, the Federal government averted an even greater disaster than the one which has caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs, their homes and their hopes for the future. We can recall those who suffer still in this economy, even as a fortunate few reap huge rewards.  We remember, but what shall we do with these memories?

In what was for most of you your first year at Wesleyan you witnessed a classmate brutally murdered by a man whose mental illness is so severe that he has been judged not responsible for his actions. Not responsible for his actions but easily able to buy a gun while continuing to stalk a woman. We will never forget Johanna’s vulnerability to gun violence; we will not forget that her vulnerability as a woman is not a rarity in America. We remember, but what shall we do with these memories?

For the last four years you have found ways to keep these memories alive while pursuing your education with, as we like to say at Wes, “boldness, rigor and practical idealism.” Allow me a word or two about that boldness. I don’t mean just the ability to dance for hours while roaming the campus in large groups, nor do I mean the chutzpa to buy and then sell the ACB, or to challenge Rosenthal and Roth to a game of hoops. I mean the audacity to write poetry that is as searing as it is heartfelt; to perform classic works of theater or music with a personal reframing that is startling yet faithful; to crunch through terabytes of data to better understand patterns that others have long misunderstood. This is audacity in the service of experience, in the service of learning.

The class of 2012 has often displayed a commitment to rigor that complements this boldness. Whether it be the meticulous efforts to better understand the role of interneurons in seizures; or to analyze representations of trauma in great works of literature; or to study geochemisty and sedimentology through an analysis of local river systems; or to understand the differences between Hegel and Adorno on aesthetics…these all took a commitment to focus and detail, to painstaking analysis and clear communication. There is also, I believe, a form of idealism in this work: the ideal that the experience of learning, the labor of learning, will result in something worth building upon.

With regards to practical idealism, too, this class is truly remarkable. So many examples come to mind: Kennedy Odede’s work in education in Kibera, Kenya; or Tasmiha Khan’s project for clean water and sanitation in Khalishpur, Bangladesh; or Raghu Appasani’s efforts to improve mental health treatment in rural India; or Harry Bartle and Maddie Neufield’s collaboration with Middletown Youth Radio, or the scores of tutors at MacDonough, Traverse Square, Green Street and Upward Bound – so many members of the class of 2012 have defied hipster pessimism and irony with their brains and sweat. Along with my colleagues on the Board, faculty and staff, I marvel at your vivacity and your care.

At Wesleyan we believe that this vivacity and care are key to the happiness of a lifetime of learning, commitment and participation. We want you to remember the pleasure of the camaraderie and openness that have characterized the Wesleyan community to which you will always belong. We want you to remember these pleasures, the feelings of freedom and accomplishment, because we believe that these will stimulate you to continue to be bold, to be rigorous, and to nurture your practical idealism. This may not be as easy as you imagine.  From all around you will come calls for a practicality that is not so idealistic — calls to be more serious, more attentive to “the real world.”  Make no mistake: these are really calls for conformity, demands for conventional thinking that, if heeded, will impoverish your, our, economic, cultural and personal lives.

As I say each year, generations of Wesleyan alumni can unite around the rejection of conformity and conventional thinking. Wes alumni have used their education to mold the course of culture themselves lest the future be shaped by those for whom creativity and change, freedom and equality, diversity and tolerance, are much too threatening. Now we alumni are counting on you to join us in helping to shape our culture, so that it will not be shaped by forces of fear and violence. As you shape this future, we are counting on you to remember.

We remember, but what shall we do with these memories? I trust you will gratefully acknowledge those who have sacrificed to nurture you, to guide you, and to protect our freedoms. I trust you will act to reduce violence in the world around us, especially those forms of violence that target the most vulnerable.  I trust that you will practice forms of thinking that create opportunity rather than defend inequality and privilege. I trust you will resist the temptations of conformity even as you reject puerile and narcissistic displays of separateness.

I have this trust because I have seen what you can do. What you can do fills me with hope, fills me with confidence in the investment of education. I know that you will find new ways to build community, to experience the arts, to join personal authenticity with compassionate solidarity. When this happens, you will feel the power and promise of your education. And we, your Wesleyan family, we will be proud of how you keep your education alive by making it effective in the world.

My dear friends and colleagues, four years ago I helped unload your cars here on Andrus field, and as you go off to your exciting pursuits I will be cheering for you back here in Middletown. Come home often to share your news, your memories and your dreams. Thank you and Good luck!

Creativity and the Curriculum

For the last four years or so, we have been making a great effort to emphasize some of Wesleyan’s traditional strengths. For example, Wes students are known as having intense political concerns, and we have tried to find ways of making the curriculum more responsive to those interests. The Civic Engagement Certificate and many of the activities of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship and the Center for Community Partnerships are helping our students find ways to make a difference in the public sphere. Provost Rob Rosenthal often speaks of the “engaged university,” and we are making progress in linking engagement with educational content.

Wesleyan students also are known for great creativity. Whether in Film Studies or Biology, the study of religion or the practice of artistic performance, Wesleyan students are innovative and productive. Nowhere is that more apparent than in musical performance. On Saturday night Jubilee was inspiring an audience in the Crowell Concert Hall, while in Memorial Chapel Aaron Peisner ’12 led a terrific chorus as part of his senior thesis work. Aaron had prepared choral music that spanned four centuries and several languages. The singers joined together in a labor of affection, intelligence and joy.

I’ve wanted to make sure that our curriculum is responsive to this energy from the student body. Last year I asked Charles Salas, Director of Strategic Initiatives, to think about how we should pursue the objective in Wesleyan 2020 of spurring creativity and innovation across the university.  He decided to focus on the disciplines represented in our curriculum.  The term “creativity,” of course, can be vague.  One department’s view can be quite different from another’s, so Charles met with a number of programs and asked them what creativity meant in their worlds and how they felt that they enhanced the creative capacities of their students. I hope many of you will read the full report, which gives a great sense of the discussions. Here’s the final paragraph, which gives a taste of what he found:

As for the discussions, I was struck by two things in particular.
(1) Regardless of how resistant faculty were to the subject of creativity in the beginning, it wasn’t long before that resistance dissipated. Faculty often remarked in the end that the discussions had been less predictable and more enjoyable than anticipated. It’s my estimation that faculty, in talking about their experiences in the classroom, found themselves in touch with their own passion for learning—itself a crucial if indirect contributor to student creativity. By modeling a passion for learning in the classroom, Wesleyan faculty spark the desire for such passion in their students—a desire that is necessary if students are to make use of the opportunity to develop their own creative capacities. And (2), many departments observed in passing that they viewed their seniors as more creative than their first and second-year students—observations indicative of the enhancement (purposeful or not) of student creativity across the curriculum.